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Great Interview in Fanfare (US) with Jesper Sivebæk on "Ta´ mig med"

July 13, 2021

Robert Schulslaper

As the head of the classical guitar department at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, Jesper Sivebaek loves his instrument and its fascinatingly diverse repertoire, both of which he started to explore from the age of eight. However, his focus wasn’t limited to the “classical”; he was always open to music in all its forms, including pop and rock. Early exposure to singer/songwriter Kim Larsen’s recordings captivated him, as they had so many of his fellow Danes. That youthful enthusiasm persisted throughout his career, eventually prompting him to arrange a number of Larsen’s songs, recently released as Ta’ Mig Med: Kim Larsen Songs For Classical Guitar (OUR Recordings 8.226195). Sivebaek provides a new perspective on these songs that, in the words of journalist Erik Jensen, “capture the quintessence of Danishness.” Always faithful to the originals, the arrangements are sufficiently sophisticated to appeal to classical guitarists and “serious” concert audiences, while offering pop/rock fans a heartfelt tribute to their idol. Who better to speak with to learn more about this intriguing project than the arranger himself, Jesper Sivebaek?

Kim Larsen, the rock and pop singer/songwriter who died in 2018, was, as the saying goes, “a legend in his own time.” What was it about him that so captivated the Danish people?

In his book about Kim Larsen, Songs of a Lifetime, Erik Jensen wrote, “We all [Danes] have our own story with Kim Larsen. That is how much he and his music means to us.” When he died, thousands of people gathered out in the streets in a kind of grief march, walking silently to show their respect. Many of his songs—giant hits at home—are songs that could unite an entire country. His universal appeal across several generations and all ages is unique.

What was your story with him?

Kim Larsen’s music has followed me ever since I was very young. First it was through the rock band Gasolin’, that took me and my friends in our very early teen years on a journey that had such a big impact on us that the songs and the musical feeling and energy of the band still, more than 40 years after they split up, stand very strong in my memory. Gasolin’ and Kim Larsen’s voice totally blew me away: the same for his years as a solo artist performing mostly with his bands Bellami and Kjukken.

All through his career he had an enormous work discipline, writing more than 500 songs. He was working all the time, always with a guitar nearby—searching for the next tune, on his bike, whistling. Tunes came quite easily to him, but he also discarded a lot of songs. Out of maybe 30 new songs, only 12 or 14 would end up on an album. His melodies and his lyrics hit something in me, mean something to me. The simple, strong melodies stick in one’s mind and, unlike so much else, I don’t get tired of them. I actually return to them very often.

When did the guitar enter your life?

I got my first guitar as a Christmas present when I was eight years old. In the bag with the right-handed guitar—I play left-handed—there was a book of chords that I strummed upside down. Later, a girl from our street told me that if I wanted to play with my fingers and not only strum, I should turn the strings around. That I did. Then I got a teacher and from then on I studied mostly classical technique. I learned a small classical piece and afterwards my uncle presented me with a Segovia album; I was completely fascinated with all the sounds and moods he could produce. And I remember that I wanted to be able to play like him.

It was around that time that your aunt brought one of Kim’s records to your house—a life-changing event, in a way, as you’ve said that “My two musical heroes since then have been Andrés Segovia and Kim Larsen.” An odd couple if ever there was one….

They are maybe as far from each other as possible. Segovia was the legendary master who succeeded in his mission to make the classical guitar a respected classical concert instrument. He was on an almost never-ending tour for 60 years and played concerts in the most famous concert halls the world over. He was a revered icon and a true master of the guitar. Both Segovia and Kim Larsen struck something in me. With Segovia it was his sound and many colors, and his very personal interpretation of our repertoire. With Kim Larsen it was his voice, his melodies, and his lyrics. Kim Larsen is for us the epitome of authenticity, the free spirit. He never tried to please. He was just himself and true to his ideals, and he was never calculated in his music. His music and lyrics are pure. I often return to Segovia and Larsen for inspiration.

What were you trying to capture in your arrangements?

My intention has been to interpret the songs as they exist in my memory—with great respect for the originals—but also to transform the songs into classical guitar pieces that exploit the technical and sound potential of the instrument and present the songs in an intimate and different way. I try to capture the nature and mood of each song. What is special about this particular one? What has charmed me, and what is it that makes it stick in my memory? My plan has been to make the arrangements something special—that is what the songs deserve!

I think Larsen’s songs have a melodic quality and a naturalness and a lightness that almost invites an instrumental version. They unfold in such a way that one can interpret each one as a narrative, as is actually the case with classical composers. I can’t capture his voice, but I have tried with the colors of my guitar to catch its different facets.

Someone once said that Larsen’s voice was like a highway coming out of his mouth, that over the years got warmer and more colorful. He could sing with great empathy and intensity, but he never took the sentimental road in his phrasing. It’s a very personal voice, one of a kind. The voice could make you feel comfort or make you feel encouragement. And the lyrics were always sung with great sincerity. To quote [musician] Henrik Marstal, “Kim Larsen saw himself as a postman with a trusted letter in his hand that he had not written himself. He was merely a messenger of dreams of the world of yesterday and thereby security for several generations.”

Not to slight the gift of melody, but for many it’s the lyrics that give a song meaning.

I think that for Kim Larsen songs it’s a combination. His simple, strong melodies that just stick in one’s mind, and that he always—all through his career—wrote both deep and silly happy songs. An album was always varied—slow songs, songs in three beats like a waltz, and fast get-the-party-started songs.

The melodies came quite easily to him—another Danish singer/songwriter, Stig Moller, who also worked with Kim Larsen, once stated that the melodies flowed out of him like another Mozart—but he worked very hard on the lyrics. The lyrics are the hard work, he often said. A phrase of lyrics could sometimes take years until he was satisfied. He sings about people, hope, dreams, death, love, situations we all know and feel related to. He had the ability to elevate the poetry of everyday life into eternity. We love his melodies, but for most people Kim Larsen is the lyrics.

You began these arrangements more than 10 years ago—why?

Kim Larsen’s songs are such a big part of my life that I simply could not help myself trying to make instrumental versions for classical guitar. The first one I did was “in a moment” because it’s just a fantastic melody with a very strong little interlude in the middle of the song.

I think one of my first arrangements that I played in public was “Lady Oh Lady,” written for my guitar duo partner Per Paalsson’s wedding party. I thought it came out quite well, and I could give it the feeling that I wanted: I was actually quite surprised that it worked so well for the guitar. At another time, I was playing the beautiful milonga by Jorge Cardoso and it got me started on doing “Planes at Night,” where I could feel the milonga rhythm. Kim Larsen was very influenced by folk music and sometimes used a banjo with his band Kjukken, and he told an interviewer that he loved when guitarists played with their fingers. He spoke very highly of Joan Baez’s guitar playing. So I incorporated those influences in the arrangements, along with impressions of Villa-Lobos, bossa nova, bluegrass, classical music, and hymns. When Kim Larsen was younger, he wanted to travel around singing and playing solo in cities while his family would pass the hat to collect some money. That gave me the idea for treating the guitar like a one-man band in “Joanna.” The bass is played with the thumb, with the rest of the guitar played by just hitting the chords with your fingers on the fingerboard. This allows you to do the drums with the free fingers in the other hand, and then the melody on top.

No doubt that’s easier to demonstrate than describe! But moving on, who were some of the teachers who helped you develop the skill to play these demanding arrangements?

I am so very grateful to all of them. When I was very young, my first teacher, Ole Nielsen, taught me small classical and folk-like pieces by ear. So, very quickly, I had a little repertoire to perform with. That meant a lot in my motivation—to perform, to show others what I had learned. I’ve often thought that I might have been less motivated if my first teacher insisted on my learning the notes by playing simple melodies. It wasn’t until I was around 15 years old that I learned the notes.

Jørgen Bjørslev, my first teacher at the academy, had an enormous influence. He believed very much in me, but was also very hard to please musically. I remember him never giving up on my tone quality and going deep into the music. I think I had played J. S. Bach’s Suite, BWV 995, for several years, and still he told me, “You can go even deeper into the music … your sound should come from inside. Picture the sound and then do it.” (I should also mention that he had a wide appreciation of different music genres and also did a lot of arranging.)

Alvaro Pierri was the perfect next professor for me. He told me, “You play with passion, but it’s not clean.” With him I learned how to practice with a plan and to be patient. I have invited Alvaro many times to Copenhagen to give masterclasses and concerts, and he is one of my heroes. He is a wonderful teacher and musician.

Per-Olof Johnson was the grand old man of Scandinavian guitar. He was the “father” of most Danish and Swedish guitarists. I was his last student, and he gave me a lot of freedom. He told me many times, “I don’t agree totally with what you are doing, but it makes sense and I can follow your musical ideas.” If he didn’t understand what I did or couldn’t follow me, he told me straight out: “I don’t understand what you are doing, Jesper,” and then you had to do it more convincingly. He was a very warm person with a lovely personality.

You also took part in masterclasses with people like Julian Bream, John Williams, and Alicia de Larrocha.

Three great and very different masterclasses. With Julian Bream the class lasted for several days and the little group of eight participants played for him two times. I remember very clearly how fantastically he demonstrated whatever we performed for him. His sound and all the colors were very inspiring. He was very clear in his teaching, and with his passion and enormous knowledge he lifted us and showed how high the limit in music was.

John Williams also taught us for a few days, but only chamber music. I was there with my Scandinavian Guitar Duo. John Williams was more into questions: Why do you do this, and what do you want to show and tell the audience? Questions like that. He created a very warm atmosphere and he told us that we could ask him anything. All questions are good questions, he said. He also played a concert in the historic Round Tower, built in 1637, that has a phenomenal acoustic for guitar. It was simply a wonderful concert. He told us afterwards that it was one of the best acoustic halls he ever played in.

Alicia de Larrocha gave a masterclass in Spanish piano music, but played by guitarists. Again I was there with my guitar duo, and we played Evocation and El Puerto by Albéniz for her. She knew what she wanted from us. She was a very strong-willed personality. We all learned a lot that day. I remember in general that the guitarist should take more care of the bass.

Was music important in your family?

Going back some generations there had been a few musicians, mainly folk and military musicians. My parents didn’t play any instruments, but they sang a lot and were very open to all kinds of music and they were always very supportive. My uncle worked as a technician at the Royal Danish Theater, where opera and ballet are also performed. We visited him many times and that had a huge impact on me.

Did you ever join a pop or rock band? I recently interviewed Lars Hannibal of OUR Recordings (your current label) about his CD Blue. That album reminds me of Ta’ Mig Med for a number of reasons, especially the arrangements of Eight Danish Songs. As I’m sure you know, Lars played in a number of bands in his earlier years.

Yes, he did. Lars has always tried to think in new ways: He’s what we call a first mover. For example, he was presenting Renaissance songs with amplified lute and double bass in pubs many years back. To answer your question, I played in a school party band for some years, but when I was studying at the Music Academy my teacher Jørgen Bjørslev asked if I would join him in a jazz band. I played electric bass, and actually found it easier to play upside down because I was afraid of breaking the strings if I reversed them.

Your wide-ranging discography reflects your openness to different genres; you don’t limit yourself to any particular type of music.

No, not at all. I can travel to a concert listening to music by Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Alison Krauss, Paul Simon, Sting, Queen, Jobim or other Latin music, and then perform a contemporary piece by, for example, Thomas Adès or Per Nørgård. At times I may dig into J. S. Bach’s violin music or the symphonies of Beethoven or the big piano sonatas by Schubert, but I can say that I listen to all kinds of music with an open heart. It just has to be performed with quality and professionalism. I promised myself when I was younger never to be judgmental beforehand towards whatever my students brought me. When I was a student there was a lot of snobbism as to what you should play—or mainly not play. Now, as head of the guitar class at the Royal Danish Academy of Music I must live up to my words, especially as it’s very important for me to create a good environment. Students need to feel like they are part of something bigger. Feel that they are part of the Academy and that they have a strong affiliation with the guitar class. When you thrive, you develop. They are musical explorers. They must feel that something is going on in the class, that something is happening.

I have for many years insisted that they go to something major-related three times a week—for example, solo lessons, one to one, or weekly joint classes (video recorded) in which as many students as possible play, with subsequent positive criticism from their fellow students. The player can also ask for more specific responses, “Do my timbres come out?,” “Are my dynamics clear?,” etc.

The joint lesson class can also have a theme, for example, the Renaissance lute repertoire, Segovia’s or Julian Bream’s repertoire, or various collections, Latin or Flamenco, among others, from which each student has to play a few pieces and give feedback to the rest of the class so that they get to know more about the whole collection. We might go through Fernando Sor’s studies, opp. 6, 29, and 35—in all, 48 studies. Each student would play three or so and then explain what they’re about and how difficult they are to play. The other students follow along with the sheet music, so in that way they gain knowledge and insight into the work. We also have classes devoted to technique in which all the students play exercises intended to improve sound color, agility, and speed.

In recent years I have established an additional project devoted to guitar ensembles. It’s really instructive for our guitar students, who are often unfamiliar with playing in an ensemble, and it resonates in the guitar environment that we take it seriously. It also gives me an opportunity to hand-pick students who will fit well together. Over the years many of these collaborations have had great success as internationally award-winning duos, trios, and quartets. It is very important to me to create ensembles. It helps to make RDAM a little different. In October 2021 we will perform Nico Muhly’s How Little You Are for mixed choir and three guitar quartets.

Overall, my goal is to prepare our students as well as possible for the future. There are no A and B teams in our class. Everyone should have the same opportunities in relation to masterclasses, chamber music, and studio concerts. I always place the craft at the center of my teaching: Do not be sloppy. I try to develop the best in a student and find what exactly makes him or her something special. I often use the phrase, “Be yourself; the others are taken anyway.” I am persistent as a teacher and continue to demand an artistic personal expression, trying to get them to never give up.

In addition to your recordings by composers Poul Ruders, Niels Rosing-Schow, Vagn Holmboe, Lars Hegaard, and Finn Savery, you’ve performed various contemporary concertos, including Invisible Mirrors by Karl Aage Rasmussen and Ruders’s Psalmodies. Have either of these been recorded or posted online?

I performed Psalmodies a number of times and I think it is a masterpiece. I don’t think there is a recording of it. Invisible Mirrors was recorded during a radio broadcast, you can listen to it here, at the bottom of the page: jespersivebaek.com/jespersivebaek. It’s a wild piece of music.

How does performing as a soloist differ from playing in a chamber group or with orchestra?

My favorite is the Guitar Duo. I like it so much, but it is very difficult to make it sound right. You are two, but it should sound like one organism. In a guitar duo there has to be almost a telepathic connection. I remember clearly my old professor Per-Olof Johnson asking us (the Scandinavian Guitar Duo), “I wonder if it’s possible to play with the same freedom that you do when you play solo, but as a duo?” That was a sentence that we have tried to live up to ever since. Besides the Duo, I like to play all types of chamber music very much.

What do you enjoy most about performing?

Showing what my instrument can do and getting out all the magical colors. I like to think of myself as a good ambassador for the guitar and the composers. I like playing in different venues a lot and trying to create a connection with the audience—always searching for that special moment where you lose the sense of time and place. It does not happen often, but when it does it’s worth all the work.

How did you find your way to OUR Recordings?

I just had the feeling that this project was maybe something for that label, so I sent the master to Lars. He called me the next day and we met together a few times to discuss my ideas. He’s a highly professional guitarist himself, so it means a lot to me that he liked what he heard and was enthusiastic about the project. He has been the most inspiring partner and is really committed and hard working. I am very happy with his cooperation.

KIM LARSEN Kvinde Min. Hvis Din Far Gi’r Dig Lov. Joanna. Masser Af Succes. Der Er En Sang. Susan Himmelblå. Den Lige Vej. Om Lidt. Flyvere I Natten. Himlen. Kom Igen. Som Et Strejf Af En Dråbe • Jesper Sivebaek (gtr) • OUR 8.226915 (41:13)